Now that my new album of this gorgeous music is finally out in the world, available on Spotify (and most other online music-sharing platforms too!), as well as on that old-fashioned thing called a CD, I thought I would write a bit about the music itself, so that you may know about what you are hearing! I have talked a lot about the composer, Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté, both in a blog post and in my video diaries (where I video-documented my whole project surrounding Sonia and her music and which I shared on YouTube and on this website!), but haven’t yet really gone into detail about the actual music that she wrote. I believe that once you know the stories behind her violin Caprices, you can truly get to know Sonia as a person and then her music may have a beautiful impact on you, as it did on me!
Before I delve into the world of Sonia’s 10 Solo Violin Caprices, I think it would be best to explain a little more about her and what her life looked like when she composed this music. Right from a very young age, Sonia was formidable! Even in today’s culture of empowering women, female bosses and girl power, Sonia would have ruled over all. At the age of 15, when she and her mother and sister faced homelessness in Berlin at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Sonia took her violin, marched into all the bierkellers who would have her and earned enough money to get her family off the streets. She was known throughout her life as a ‘no-nonsense’, ‘tough’ and ‘stern’ character, but if we imagine how difficult it must have been to be a female composer living throughout the first half of the 20th century in Europe, particularly in Nazi-occupied Vienna during the Second World War , and making her name as an artist in her own right and as a woman who chose not to have children or live as a housewife as were the pressures of that society at that time, then perhaps we might listen to her music with a different kind of respect!
One of the most important relationships in Sonia’s life, was that with her first husband, Walter Gramatté. The two artists met in Berlin in 1919, at a private literary evening of young poets, when Sonia was just 20 years old, and they were married the following year, in 1920. Until Walter’s tragic death from TB in 1929, the couple led an adventurous life together, living and working in Berlin, Spain and France. Walter painted several wonderful images of Sonia, some of which I will include here, and it was during these years, from 1924 to 1934, that Sonia composed the 10 Caprices for Solo Violin. So much of this music and the ideas found within it reflect the life that Sonia shared with Walter and her own often powerful and tragic feelings related to losing her first love. After Walter died, Sonia met an art critic named Ferdinand Eckhardt in 1930, who was researching Walter’s work at the time. The two connected through their love and respect for Walter, and Ferdinand eventually became Sonia’s second husband in 1934. I think her emotions of loyalty to Walter while choosing to go with another man and the complexity of these personal feelings is also something that can be heard most poignantly in Sonia’s later Caprices.
So, now to the Caprices themselves. They are quite unique pieces of music in Sonia’s body of work, in that she wrote each one quickly, kind of ‘off the cuff’, where her other works were more carefully thought out and composed more slowly. She would observe a fleeting moment or experience something in her daily life that would capture her attention and then immediately sketch out a musical idea on the violin to portray her feelings about it. Each Caprice was also written in a different place, reflecting where Sonia was living at that particular time. Some Caprices were composed in Berlin, some in Spain, some in France, and the last one in Vienna, and Sonia sticks to the language, as in the musical language and also the actual spoken language, of each place accordingly. Therefore, we have 10 Caprices that are each completely individual and very imaginative, telling their own personal story.
Caprice No. 1 is called ‘Die Kranke und die Uhr’ – ‘The Sick and the Clock’. Sonia wrote this Caprice as she sat at the bedside of her sick friend, while a clock ticked ominously in the background. In this short Caprice, there are two main sections; the rhythmic chime of the clock, and the emotive cry from Sonia, representing her feelings about losing her sick friend. The clock motif returns at the end of the Caprice, but this time Sonia asks for it to be played as quietly as possible; perhaps there is a connection between the incredibly quiet, fading rhythm of the clock on the wall and the fading rhythm of breathing life in the bed before her…
Following this, we have Caprice No. 2, ‘Sherz’, or ‘Joke/Prank‘. It’s only about 2 and a half minutes, but it’s probably the trickiest little bugger of the set (is that the prank?!). It’s full of little funny, sparkly moments and plenty of tricks!
Caprice No. 3, ‘Chant triste-chant gai’, ‘Sad song-happy song’, is probably the first of the Caprices where we really feel Sonia’s love for Walter soaring through it. It goes wayyyy high up on the G and D strings in the sad song bit, which often sounds overwhelming and makes me feel like Sonia almost couldn’t express enough how much she loved Walter, and then becomes more bouncy and bright in the happy song. This Caprice constantly switches between the two songs, but with which one will Sonia leave us?
The following two Caprices were composed during Sonia’s time living in Spain, and they very much portray this new culture that she was experiencing for the first time. First, we have Caprice No. 4, ‘La isla de oro‘, ‘The golden island’, which Sonia composed on the island of Mallorca. The Caprice opens with strummed pizzicato chords that sound like a guitar, and then she writes a kind of flamenco melody, very dark, mysterious and mesmerisingly beautiful. I especially love how Sonia ends the Caprice with the same chords she opened with, but this time she writes ‘aspirando’ above them; I thought this might indicate something like we must breathe in the last smells of Mallorca, faint now and fading away as the music also fades! What do you think?
Sonia dedicated Caprice No. 5, ‘Danse Marocaine’ or Marocain Dance, to Fatima, a dancer whom Sonia observed performing – an impression that would last a lifetime on her. This music is rhythmic and exciting, capturing the essence of the Spanish dancers, the sights of the gypsies, the markets and the camels who all shared the experience of seeing this dance with Sonia. The middle section is also quite remarkable; Sonia writes for it to be played like a ‘Moorish flue‘. It took me a while to come up with a sound that I thought could match this instruction, to make my violin sound like a traditional Spanish flute. With the help of a wonderful flautist at The Banff Centre, I think I created an unusual pipe-like sound. See how you think I did!
Caprice No. 6, ‘El pajarito’, ‘The little bird‘, is probably my favourite of the set. Sonia wrote it after observing a little bird trapped in his cage, and the whole Caprice follows his struggle in trying to escape to freedom. The ending is strange and open – I think Sonia leaves it to us to decide if the little bird won in his plight, found his freedom or succumbed to a life of imprisonment inside the cage. I thought I would share too, that at the end of this Caprice Sonia has left this note: ‘Music is a language; let’s describe here the soul of this tiny bird: describing what he went through after being aware where he was: gentle first, desperate and resigning, because hopeless, helpless!’ Could there be a personal message from Sonia behind these words and this music? Did she feel trapped in the cage of a society that didn’t accept her as a woman and a composer?
Caprice No. 7, ‘Le départ d’un train’, ‘The departure of the train’, portrays the moment in 1928 when, as Sonia’s career was just beginning to take off, she said goodbye to her sick husband on the platform of a train station in France. Sonia was off on a concert tour in America, leaving her beloved Walter behind to battle his illness alone. It was unimaginably difficult for both of them, and this is the mood that comes across in this Caprice. It has some beautifully sad melodies combined with train noises, speeding up and slowing down, winding it’s way to its own end. The music almost matches an inner struggle that perhaps Sonia was feeling; the painful emotions of saying goodbye to Walter mixed with her exciting train journey, taking her to places she had only dreamt of.
In Caprice No. 8, ‘Elegie’, we say a last farewell to Walter. It was composed during winter, an image of falling snow beautifully reflecting the tragic mood of the music. Even as Sonia remembers their happy times together, captured in the sprightly middle section, the pain and emotion of losing him is ever prevalent here.
Something completely different in Caprice No. 9, ‘Chestnut Hill at Night’. This one was composed in Philadelphia, during Sonia’s big concert tour in the States (which had been organised and promoted by Leopold Stokowski). This Caprice is full of the new and exciting sounds and sights that Sonia experiences for the first time in this new part of the world. It was really fun to come up with ideas for what was happening in each moment of this music while I was working on it; what exactly did Sonia see here, on Chestnut Hill!? Philadelphia is so often associated with the righteous traditions and philosophies upheld by America’s forefathers, but, paradoxically, this Caprice sounds sometimes exotic, sometimes risky, even sometimes quite dangerous!
Finally, Caprice No. 10, ‘Klage’, ‘Complaint’. By this point, in 1934, Sonia had found peace and contentment with her second husband, Ferdinand. Did she feel guilty for her so-called ‘betrayal’ of Walter? Is this Caprice perhaps a lament on losing her real love? This music is slow and sad, not in the tragic sense, as in Caprices 7 and 8, but in a humble and soft way. Sonia would never let go of Walter, he certainly always lived on as a central part of her life and Ferdinand’s too.
There is so much more that I could say about this remarkable composer and her music, far too much to be able to fit into this one post. If you would be interested to read more snippets about Sonia and her life, or quotes from and about Sonia herself, I will be sure to add more to the Stories of Sonia and Quotes pages, which you can feel free to browse through – there are some real corkers in there! If reading about the Caprices here has given you an appetite to know more about Sonia’s music, you can read my Masters Thesis, which studies the Caprices in a detailed and comprehensive way.
For now, though, I really hope you will feel inspired to give my album a listen, and perhaps to read along with this blog post, so that the music may make more sense as you listen. I still have some CDs available, so if you would like to own your own copy of the Caprices, or you know of a library or education institution that would be interested in adding it to their archives, please contact me and I will send one over!
I hope you enjoy the album and Sonia’s music, and that we, together, can bring more public awareness to this extraordinary composer and beautiful music!